Exit of Kallum Watkins from Leeds Rhinos just latest in series of blows

EVENTS at Leeds Rhinos become more surreal by the day yet somehow less incredulous all at the same time.

GOING, GOING, GONE: Leeds's Kallum Watkins pictured at Anfield after the Magic Weekend win over London Broncos. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

The announcement yesterday that captain and England star Kallum Watkins will leave at the end of the season should be a bombshell.

However, in light of recent happenings at Emerald Headingley, perhaps it is just par for the course.

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Two head coaches sacked in under a year, embroiled in another relegation fight, losing to lower-league opposition in the Challenge Cup, still no news on who will be their next chief...?

England's Kallum Watkins attacks during the World Cup final against Australia at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane. Picture: SWpix.com

Beleaguered Leeds fans, so used to sustained glory, must dread what’s coming next.

When it comes to Watkins, he has been an incredible player for the club, claiming three Grand Final wins, two Challenge Cups and a World Club Challenge since emerging through the Academy ranks to become one of Super League’s most exciting stars.

Clearly, like so many in Rhinos colours, he is currently struggling and that is plain to see.

Returning from an ACL injury – as Watkins did do in February – is never easy and it always takes time for players to recapture their best form.

Indeed, some players never do, the major surgery proving too catastrophic and sometimes leaving the individual a yard slower than before. There is no doubt that, in his pomp, there are few finer sights in Super League than the graceful Watkins beating an opponent with his footwork and effortlessly gliding into space.

Presently, though, everything looks an effort for the 28-year-old who – hesitant and indecisive –does look a shadow of his former self in both attack and defence.

Yet it is still so early in his return and there is nothing to suggest, with time, that he will not return to his previous heights.

Furthermore, Watkins is playing in a whole side bereft of form and confidence while the captaincy (he was never an obvious choice to replace Danny McGuire last season) must weigh heavy.

However, the root of the player’s exit – a statement said ‘both agreed to mutually end his contract with the club’ – appears to stem from a fall-out over his deal which was due to run until the end of 2021.

It was only 14 months ago Leeds announced that new four-year contract. Chief executive Gary Hetherington described Watkins as an “elite, world-class player” and adding “at 27, he is committing his best years to the Rhinos and the Super League competition which is a fantastic boost for our club and competition.”

Yet, similarly, it was only weeks later that he suffered the injury – his second ACL rupture having done the other knee earlier in his career – against Castleford Tigers.

With Leeds now in desperate need of rebuilding their squad, it is understood they tried to renegotiate the final two years of his contract to help free up funds.

But you can imagine how that went down; Leeds, who have brought ‘marquee’ players Trent Merrin and Konrad Hurrell from the NRL this term on significantly more money than the rest, asking one of their most decorated and loyal players to take a pay cut...?

Watkins, who has scored 101 tries in 256 games for Leeds, could easily have left Headingley for more money elsewhere previously yet never did.

This turn of events must have been galling for him and you can understand why he may have felt badly let down.

Watkins’s team-mate for eight seasons at Rhinos, director of rugby Kevin Sinfied, has already shown how brutal he can be.

Sacking coach and good friend Dave Furner after just 14 games last month proved that.

Yet this decision, given Watkins’s history at Leeds, is arguably even more brutal.

The key now is to make the savage cut worthwhile meaning Sinfield has to get the make-up of this squad rebuild spot on. There is immense pressure on him to do that.

Moreover, it is strange to think Watkins will now leave for nothing when, just over a year ago, it would have taken around half-a-million pounds to command his prized signature.

Even if Leeds do not now think he is worth keeping, he will not be short of offers with Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors both potential suitors.

Salford-born Watkins played his amateur rugby for Warrington club Latchford Albion and both former Kiwi centre Bryson Goodwin and ex-England centre Ryan Atkins could be leaving at the end of the season. That said, they have recruited former England rugby union centre Luther Burrell from Northampton Saints.

Wigan, too, are in the market for a top-line centre while Toronto Wolfpack, led by Watkins’s former Leeds coach Brian McDermott, would certainly be interested if they earned promotion to Super League.

Personally, I would like to see him head to the NRL.

For all his undoubted talent, and 25 England caps, Watkins has had few stand-out games at Test level so people do still argue whether he can be dubbed as genuinely world-class.

Granted, he is one of just a handful of players centrally contracted by the RFL but, in my eyes, has yet to truly shine at the top level.

If he proved his worth in Australia, that would certainly help alter that viewpoint although that ship may now have sailed.

Would an NRL club be interested given Watkins’s recent injury issues and drop in form?

If he does get the chance, he should definitely take it.

Sinfield said: “I’d like to thank Kallum for his outstanding service to the club and, in particular, his complete professionalism throughout this process.

“Kallum is aware of our plans for the squad moving forward and the restrictions that the salary cap has on our ability to develop this group of players.

“Kallum is one of the greatest talents this club has produced, and I know he will be giving his absolute all for the remainder of the season to make sure he finishes his time here on the best possible note.”

Watkins said: “This was an incredibly tough decision for me to arrive at especially as I was happy to remain at the club for the remainder of my contract.

“However, this is an agreement that suits myself and the club. I am 28 and looking forward to a new challenge whether in Super League or abroad and I wish the club all the best for the years ahead.”